Caregiving for Older Adults

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2018

Compared to younger people, older adults are more likely to have cancer and other health conditions. Adults over age 65 are more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, and conditions that affect the heart, lungs, or kidneys. They are also more likely to have problems with memory and thinking.

Older adults with cancer often have different needs than younger people. If you are an older adult with cancer, you might already have a caregiver for other health conditions or general help. If you take care of an older adult, cancer might be just one condition they need help with.

Managing responsibilities

Caregivers for older adults often face specific challenges. These can include:

  • Having a job

  • Taking care of your immediate family

  • Living far away from the older adult who needs care

  • Having your own health concerns

Many older adults receive care from family members. Often, one family member is the main caregiver. But it is important to know that caregiving responsibilities can last more than just a few months. The responsibilities may continue for several years, and caregivers may feel overwhelmed or burned out.

Creating a caregiving team

Having friends, relatives, or neighbors who can help with caregiving is important, especially if the person you care for has several health concerns. For example, you might need help:

  • Moving or lifting your loved one out of bed or to the bathroom or elsewhere

  • Organizing medications

  • Managing bills and paperwork

  • Taking care of your own home, family, and work responsibilities

Who can help with caregiving?

Other family members, friends, neighbors, members of a religious community or hobby group, and paid caregivers can all be part of your team.

Many people may offer help when they learn about the cancer. You might feel like saying no because you want to do the caregiving yourself, are embarrassed to say you need help, or for other reasons. But instead of saying no right away, ask if you can keep their contact information. You can also ask if they would like to do something specific to help, such as pick up groceries, walk a pet, or help with child care so you can spend time doing caregiving tasks. Then, keep the information for when you need it.

Hiring someone to help may also be an option. The cancer care team usually includes a social worker who can help you find home care services and other resources. Talk with the social worker or the health care team about your options. If you are concerned about the cost, ask about low-cost or free services and how much is covered by insurance.

Long-distance caregiving

You might be responsible for an older adult with cancer even if you live some distance away. Long-distance caregiving tasks can include:

  • Keeping information on the cancer diagnosis, including the type of cancer, what stage it is, and the treatment options.

  • Telling the health care team about other health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

  • Updating the medication list. Learn more about managing multiple medications.

  • Keeping the health care team, including the family doctor and other health care providers, updated on the person's health.

  • Reviewing finances and legal documents to help plan how to pay bills and who will make decisions if your loved one cannot. Learn more about tracking medical bills and health insurance claims.

  • Arranging home health care and help from community resources.

Adjusting to changing roles

Taking care of a sick child might feel natural. But caring for a parent, older relative, or spouse might feel awkward at times. For example, if your mother was the family caregiver, it can be difficult to see her needing care. She might also have difficulty letting others help her.

Here are some tips for caregiving when roles are changing.

  • Talk to each other. Ask the person you care for what they are thinking and feeling, and share your own thoughts if you feel comfortable. A social worker, counselor, or chaplain can help you talk about the situation.

  • Remember that the person who is sick has their own wants and needs. For example, you might have different ideas than they do about the best treatment. If they are able to decide with their health care team, respect their right to make their own choices.

  • Ask for help with tasks that are difficult for you. For example, if bills and insurance are overwhelming, another family member or a lawyer can help you handle them. If you have difficulty lifting the sick person, talk to their health care team about finding help.

Related Resources

Sharing Responsibilities

Hiring Home Care Services

When Cancer is Not Your Only Health Concern

ASCO Answers: Guide to Caregiving (PDF)

New Research for Caring for and Treating People With Cancer Age 60 or Older from SIOG 2020

More Information

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